What is Supportive Psychotherapy?

wiseGEEK Writer

Supportive psychotherapy helps clients deal with ongoing mental illness, serious physical illness, grief, trauma or other stressors that are not well-addressed by traditional psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis, which aims at self-development, is often seen as antithetical to supportive psychotherapy, though the separating line between the two is not always evident. At times, some people may undergo psychoanalysis and also receive supportive therapy from their therapists, especially if they form a long lasting professional relationship with an analyst. More generally, supportive psychotherapy works with clients who have pressing, current issues that make pursuing depth work very difficult, and psychotherapists help by providing emotional support, encouragement, hopefulness, a safe place to listen, some advice, potentially some teaching, and any other tools that a client can use to stabilize or gain recovery.

In some cases, bereavement and grief therapy is part of a broader treatment plan.
In some cases, bereavement and grief therapy is part of a broader treatment plan.

There are many people who seek supportive psychotherapy. The severely mentally ill may benefit from it, particularly while working to find medications to stabilize their conditions. The psychotherapist skilled at this form of therapy works within the framework of what the client can do. An actively suicidal person with unrelenting depression generally needs to find a way to survive the experience. Depending on the psychotherapist’s background, in addition to listening carefully to the client’s account of daily living, distress about illness, and other features, he or she might use other tools such as cognitive behavioral therapy to help the client work through and contextualize the illness.

People with personality disorders may engage in supportive psychotherapy.
People with personality disorders may engage in supportive psychotherapy.

The relationship between client and therapist is of great importance in supportive psychotherapy, and the therapist becomes a person on whom the client can depend when the therapeutic alliance is strong. There are arguably aspects of the transferential in this relationship, which may be discussed at times. Therapy leans most toward providing the support the client needs at the moment, and a strong alliance helps to foster trust.

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Supportive psychotherapy doesn’t have to be of long duration, though it can be and may be for those with chronic illness or extreme trauma. In some instances, people see a psychotherapist for a brief period to process a problem they are experiencing. One situation where short term therapy may be appropriate is with grief counseling, and clients might meet with a therapist for a few weeks or months only. The experience of being heard and being given emotional support may better allow people to express and process their feelings.

Another form of supportive psychotherapy may occur for those people with personality disorders who may not respond to traditional psychoanalytic methods. The therapist would instead work to help people assess behavior that might be changed to improve living, and this form of work can actually take a long time to accomplish because of the difficulties of some of the personality disorders.

Traditional psychoanalysts might claim all problems of today are rooted in the past, and sometimes those initially receiving supportive psychotherapy switch to a more psychoanalytic model later. Not everyone wishes to pursue this, and inquiry into childhood experiences isn’t possible for all people. Supportive psychotherapy has a legitimate place in the therapy model, though it is occasionally disparaged as not as rigorous as psychoanalysis. Actually, it is just as challenging for the therapist, who sometimes spends years with ill clients who continue to need tremendous support.

Supportive psychotherapy helps clients deal with grief.
Supportive psychotherapy helps clients deal with grief.

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